Hidden Cues To Eating

Those of us who have struggled with weight control know that there is more to eating than simply responding to hunger. We eat and overeat for many different reasons. By overeating, I mean we consume more calories than we burn so that we gain weight when we are trying to maintain or lose weight. Or, if we are already overweight, we eat enough calories to match our calories burned so that we do not lose weight.

Easy and accessible software applications such as MyNetDiary help us set reasonable goals as well as keep track of our calories intake and calories burned. But it can’t do all of the work for us — we still have to make the decision to get off the couch and exercise and to not eat too many calories.

What drives us to overeat? There has been a lot of research in this area as the behavior of eating is actually quite complex. The purpose of this article is to help you identify cues to eating so that you can learn how to manage those cues and meet your short-term and long-term weight goals.

Internal Cues To Eating

Internal cues are those that come from within and include sensations of hunger and satiation. There are hormones (peptides or short proteins) as well as nerve signals and neurochemicals (chemical messengers in the brain) that are released that drive our desire to eat as well as signal us to stop eating. Those satiety signals get released after about 20 minutes of eating. When people eat very quickly, they are more likely to eat too much since they are not giving their body a chance to tell their brain, “Hey, I am no longer starving now, so you can slow down or stop eating!”

Another internal cue is the volume of food and drink ingested. Foods and drinks that create volume in our stomach without a lot of calories are helpful for weight loss. Think water and fiber. Expansion of the stomach sends signals to our brain to stop eating since we feel satiated or full. Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., conducts research on the science of satiety and has a very useful book regarding how to feel full on fewer calories: “The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet: Smart, Simple, Science-Based Strategies for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off.”

High fiber foods are filling because the fiber binds water and distends our stomach so that we feel full. Fruit, vegetables, dried beans and peas (cooked), and plain whole grains are all foods that have the potential to help us feel satisfied with a reasonable caloric cost. The lowest in calories and carbs in this category would be non-starchy vegetables - greens, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, zucchini, cabbage, etc. This is why you hear the recommendation to fill half your plate with non-starchy veggies. It is also a great tactic for increasing your vitamin and mineral intake without a lot of calories.

High protein meals can also help you feel full on fewer calories. Aim for 20 grams or more of protein per meal.

High fat content can also make you feel satisfied. However, foods that are both high in fat and carbs could be triggers for overeating and work against satiety. This is one reason why people get into so much trouble with chips, French fries, and chocolate chip cookies.

External Cues To Eating

External cues are those that come from our environment. Sometimes we are aware of these cues but more often we are not. They include environmental factors such as visibility (being able to see the food), how the food is presented, where the food is located, background lighting and music, aroma or smell, sound, cultural events and holidays, time of day, and even one’s work schedule. External cues influence our eating behavior just as strongly if not more so than internal cues. One of the most entertaining books I have read on this subject is Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. This book focuses on what causes us to eat more than we intended.

The following table contains a short list of hidden cues to eating that I find particularly useful to think about in terms of managing caloric intake. Most of these cues result in eating larger portion sizes or more calories than desired. The ideas presented below are mostly from Mindless Eating, but I have also added a few to the table based upon my experience as a dietitian.

Hidden Cue: Size of container, dish, or glass

What happens: We eat and drink more calories from containers that are larger. Even people who do research in this area get tricked into eating more.

  • Snack from smaller containers.
  • If you buy extra large containers to save money, then pre-portion into single-serving sizes and store the large container somewhere out of sight.
  • Serve meals and desserts on smaller dishes.
  • Serve ice cream in little 6 fl oz Pyrex bowls — they hold about ½ cup without spilling over.
  • Use smaller diameter plates. Appropriately sized entrées will look generous on an 8 or 9 inch plate rather than on a larger plate.
  • Alcoholic & caloric drinks: use tall skinny glasses instead of wide, short glasses.

Hidden Cue: Food within sight

What happens: We eat what is on our plate and drink what is in our glass. We use the absence of food as the indicator to stop eating.

  • Be mindful of what you are about to consume. Look at the portion size carefully. Is this a portion that supports your health goals?
  • If you belong to the “clean plate club,” then consider putting ¼ less of the high calorie items on your plate — most of us don’t miss it. Replace with ¼ more fruits and veggies — that will help you feel satisfied without nearly as many calories.
  • Do not put tempting treats within your line of vision. Seeing the treat serves as a constant visual cue to eat.
  • Pre-plate high caloric entrées and sides in the kitchen. Have family-style servers for lower calorie menu items such as salad and veggies.

Hidden Cue: Restaurant food

What happens: Many restaurants serve large portions of lower cost, highly caloric food items. They make money and you feel like you are getting your money’s worth since you leave with a full stomach.

  • Ask your server to skip the tortilla chips or bread that is often served free of charge.
  • Before you start eating, remove part of your entrée and place it in a take-out container.
  • Split a full entrée with your dining partner, and for yourself:
    • Order a salad with dressing on the side.
    • Order a cup of non-cream based soup.
  • Dessert: consider skipping or:
    • Share a high calories dessert with several other people (eat about ¼ of the serving).
    • Choose a dessert that is mostly fresh fruit and contains very little added syrup, sauce, crust, or cake/cookies.
  • Eat out less frequently.

Hidden Cue: Variety

What happens:

  • More food variety is linked to a higher calories intake.
  • Buffets are particularly problematic since they have variety and are also “all you can eat.” We lose track of how much we have eaten without reminders.


  • Avoid buffets.
  • Scan the buffet table first before serving yourself.
  • Visit the buffet table only once, and serve yourself only one plate of food.
  • Sit facing away from the buffet.
  • Keep plates and visual reminders of how much you have eaten on the table.
  • Be especially careful at parties where you serve yourself from large bins, bowls, or serving platters.

Hidden Cue: Dining with friends and family

What happens:

  • We unwittingly let others set the pace for how fast and how much we eat.
  • When we eat with people we like, we tend to eat for longer amounts of time than if we are by ourselves.
  • We eat more with more people at the table.


  • Be the last person to start eating.
  • Pace yourself with the slowest eater at the table.
  • Leave some food on your plate to avoid the “one more serving” offer from your host.
  • Decide how much you are going to eat before you start the meal rather than during the meal.
  • Consider eating with a smaller sized party at the table.

I hope that this article has inspired you to think about the hidden cues to eating that can be affecting your calories intake. Although not all physical responses to food and food intake can be controlled, we can manage much of our exposure to external cues. We can also relearn how to prepare or select meals so that we are satisfied after the meal without incurring a huge caloric cost.

Visit the Community Forum if you have questions about eating cues and how to manage those cues. Good luck!

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE

Last Updated on May 14, 2018

Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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